The Maritime History of a War Weary Naval Fleet

September 25, 2018 Topic: History Region: Americas Tags: HistoryNavyWarStrategySubmarines

The Maritime History of a War Weary Naval Fleet

John Lehman’s new book, Oceans Ventured: Winning the Cold War at Sea, could help America gird for what comes next on the high seas.

Second, the masters of strategy accent the importance of knowing your foe, and they are right to do so. It’s tough to forecast the impact your moves will have or glimpse likely enemy moves or countermoves without acquainting yourself with that foe’s capability, history, culture, quirks, you name it. Spare no effort to decipher that enigma of a competitor who’s bent on thwarting your will.

This basic act of statecraft is difficult in the best of circumstances, as the late Cold War revealed. Opponents can behave peculiarly for peculiar reasons. For example, gauging Soviet intentions bordered on impossible during Mikhail Gorbachev’s tenure as premier. After surveying the strategic landscape Gorbachev directed the armed forces to jettison their offensive doctrine in favor of a doctrine of “defensive sufficiency,” much as Lehman, Watkins, & Co. intended. Yet the military bureaucracy and defense-industrial base kept churning out ships, planes, and munitions as though nothing had changed. In fact, Soviet shipbuilders delivered more ship tonnage in 1989—the year the Berlin Wall came tumbling down and the Cold War effectively ended—than during any year since the 1960s, the heyday of Soviet naval construction.

Why? Because the ghost in the machine willed it. Bureaucratic institutions are like machines, and their internal workings likewise have momentum. At times they obey political leaders fitfully and belatedly. This mismatch can broadcast dangerous signals. If the leadership’s words are misaligned with observable government actions, rivals are apt to assume duplicity and plan for the worst. And indeed the U.S. leadership harbored suspicions until very late in the game. Wouldn’t you if your opponent talked defense while outfitting itself for offense? Strategists must bear this oddball legacy in mind when taking rising competitors’ measure. Many factors could deflect competitors from what seem to be sensible courses of action.

Third, never discount the importance of geography, and of the “mental maps” that human beings use to interpret their geographic surroundings and try to manage them. For instance, mariners sometimes insist there is no such thing as terrain in sea combat, but that’s only true on the open ocean. While the open sea indeed equates to a featureless plain where movements are governed by vector mechanics, it comes to resemble a broken plain as vessels approach the coast. The flat plain yields to terrain features along the shoreline, just as the American Great Plains yield to the Rocky Mountains along their western fringe. There is terrain in sea combat—and it presents opportunities while also imposing constraints on maritime operations.

The Maritime Strategy took advantage of basic physical facts such as these. Norwegian inland waters and rugged terrain cluttered Soviet radar scopes—concealing American flattops’ whereabouts and insulating these mobile airfields from counterattack. Open-ocean operations, then, constitute a mere subset of naval operations. Mental maps that disregard the near-shore environment are blinkered. Lehman, Watkins, and fleet commanders had fjords and rough coastal terrain for their playground. Today’s strategists have the “first island chain” and the rest of Asia’s congested, intricate offshore geography. They must craft creative tactics to make terrain their ally against the Chinese and Russian militaries.

Fourth, beware of wordplay in strategic competition. Secretary Lehman observes that the Soviets foresaw erecting a thousand-mile-deep (or more) offshore buffer around their periphery to cushion against a Western assault from the sea. They billed it as their “blue belt of defense” and envisioned deploying sea- and shore-based implements of sea power there to ward off attack. But look at your atlas. Excluding Western shipping from a thousand-mile belt ringing the Soviet bloc would have severed seaways that bound together the North Atlantic community and its Far Eastern counterpart. It would have dismembered the Soviets’ chief adversaries—surely an offensive aim. Likewise, be wary when Beijing professes that China is pursuing a strictly defensive strategy. The PLA doctrine of “active defense” calls for prosecuting strategically defensive aims through intensely offensive tactics and operations. A lesson from the Cold War: refuse to be gulled by strategic doublespeak.

Fifth, the 1980s is calling to demand its Maritime Strategy back. In recent years the Obama and Trump navies have taken to employing methods that hark back to the Cold War. For instance, the U.S. Pacific Fleet now uses the U.S.-based Third Fleet as an operating arm in the Far East rather than keeping it close to home to police the Eastern Pacific and supply forces to the Japan-based Seventh Fleet. This year Washington reactivated the dormant U.S. Second Fleet, which performs much the same function in the Atlantic that the Third Fleet performs in the Pacific. Fleet commanders and crews could profit from studying their 1980s forerunners. And they should expect competitors to study and learn from those years as well. It’s doubtful that simply mimicking how American fleets comported themselves then would yield the same strategic dividends now. Embrace the spirit of the 1980s—but fashion new tactics and practices.

Sixth, the naval service as a whole must think strategically. Strategy isn’t just for officers whose collars bear admirals’ stars, or for senior civilian officials. It’s for more junior officers and officials, including senior noncommissioned officers. Lehman quotes the erstwhile navigator on board the carrier Midway as reporting—after one of the major maneuvers profiled in Oceans Ventured: Winning the Cold War at Sea—that crews had little sense of the strategic and political context that shaped their daily actions, and that their daily actions shaped. They executed their orders with little idea why.

Such testimonies betray a deficit of strategic education—and of communication within the service. Context matters. Think of peacetime operations as an armed conversation in which prospective antagonists initiate naval movements and actions to make statements and replies about relative capability and resolve. Each contestant tries to portray itself as a winner. Crews that understand such larger purposes execute their missions better than those left in the dark. Furthermore, the quality of strategic thought in the service improves over time as junior folk schooled in strategy today ascend the ranks tomorrow and educate their own successors in turn. This is a project worth undertaking as the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps square off against antagonists who study history and strategic theory as a matter of course.

And seventh, strategic efficacy is not solely about fighting ships. More mundane capabilities help make the statements comprising that warlike conversation. For instance, Lehman recounts how the U.S. Pacific Fleet flexed its capability to conduct submarine maintenance far from depots back home. During one 1987 exercise the sub tender USS McKee deployed to Adak, in the Aleutian Islands. Through this simple act McKee demonstrated that U.S. fighting fleets could perform their own repairs and upkeep without returning to base. Submarines could stay on the front lines—waging war almost without pause. Ships of war could go to embattled theaters and stay. Foes could expect no breather.

The U.S. Navy’s capacity for forward logistics and maintenance was crucial to the American victories over the Imperial Japanese Navy in World War II and the Soviet Navy in the Cold War, yet it has atrophied since the Soviet flag came down over the Kremlin. The U.S. naval leadership should ponder what statement it is making to hostile and friendly audiences by letting the basics lapse. And it should renovate that capability—making a forceful new statement in the armed conversations now underway in Asia and Europe.

It feels odd to look at your own career for historical insights. The past is at once a foreign country and intimately familiar. Yet Oceans Ventured: Winning the Cold War at Sea leads us on a stroll down memory lane that’s worth taking. It could help us gird for what comes next on the high seas.

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific. The views voiced here are his alone.

Image: The USS Ronald Reagan, a Nimitz-class nuclear-powered super carrier, is followed by the USS Somerset as it departs for Yokosuka, Japan from Naval Station North Island in San Diego, California August 31, 2015. The Reagan is replacing the USS George Washington as part of a complicated three-carrier swap that exchanges crews for ships, saving the Navy millions in moving costs. REUTERS/Mike Blake